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Budget committee approves $639M K-12 education funding bump

Laurel White

Wisconsin Public Radio

Lawmakers on the state budget committee have voted to approve a $639 million funding bump for K-12 schools in Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker called for a $648 million spending increase for schools in the next state budget. The GOP lawmakers’ proposal comes in about $10 million less, after cutting the governor’s proposed increases for sparsity aid for rural districts and eliminating some performance-based funding for Milwaukee schools.

The overall school funding increase includes a $200 per pupil spending bump each year over the next two years. The new money will also raise ceilings for how much lower-spending districts are allowed to tax local residents to pay for schools.  

Republican Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, is co-chair of the budget committee. He said raising that so-called "levy limit" will help make schools more equal in Wisconsin.

"We need to be able to give our schools the same opportunity and our kids the same opportunity, regardless of their zip code," Nygren said.

The budget also includes more money for rural school districts to spend on transportation.

"There are so many districts that are in rural areas and things are really spread out and it’s really hard for them to offer transportation," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the other co-chair of the budget committee.

The budget also expands eligibility for Wisconsin’s statewide private school voucher program. It specifies students can participate in the program if their family income is less than 220 percent of the federal poverty level, about $54,000 a year for a family of four. Current law requires family income to be less than 185 percent of the poverty level, about $45,000 annually.

The state’s nonpartisan budget office estimates that will open the program to an additional 550 students.

Rep. Kartrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, argued against the change. 

"You keep on expanding vouchers, you’re taking money directly out of our public school children’s opportunities, and that’s a big deal," Shankland said. "That’s something that I don’t support, and that’s why I think this motion is far out of line with Wisconsin values.” 

The increase in education spending comes after the governor proposed cutting $127 million from education spending in his last biennial budget. That was ultimately blocked by lawmakers.

The Joint Finance Committee also took up building projects Monday, approving new building projects and renovations at a handful of UW System campuses.

Those projects include a new engineering building for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

The new building, which will be called Sesquicentennial Hall, will cost the state about $55 million.

Darling said the new building will help address a shortage of engineers in Wisconsin.

"Platteville is our number one engineering school," Darling said. "People don’t understand that, but they produce the most engineers and they will have the capacity through this expansion, with the new building, to produce 800 more a year."

The budget committee also approved projects at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Madison, UW-Parkside and UW-River Falls.

The budget committee is not expected to meet again until after Labor Day, when they’re slated to take up the final pieces of the budget, including the state’s spending plan for roads.  

Walker has said he plans to sign the budget by the end of summer.

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